Located on the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana, the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry (SYLPOE) is the busiest land port in the Western Hemisphere, processing eight percent of all people entering the United States. Completed in 2019, the new gateway creates a welcoming and safe point of arrival that reflects and supports the interconnected relationship of the two cultures of San Diego and Tijuana. The culmination of a 10-year effort, Miller Hull has redefined security, durability and performance standards for border checkpoints and the built environment.
Commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), a multiphase overhaul of the SYLPOE was a result of post-9/11 inspection protocols, as well as increasing traffic challenges. In 2009, Miller Hull was selected as the master plan and design architect to update vehicle inspection procedures and reduce border wait times. The redesign of the entire Port facility demonstrates the importance of being a leader in operational inspections and safety measures and provides a cutting-edge approach to infrastructure and traffic throughput. The impact of the redesign extends far beyond the physical boundaries of the 52-acre campus and considers the broader regional, financial, social and environmental impacts in its new design.
Set forth by GSA, the goals of the project were to: 1) incorporate the latest in security and antiterrorism enhancements, 2) improve vehicular and pedestrian processing, 3) improve operational efficiency, 4) provide greater officer and public safety, 5) decrease operational and maintenance costs, and 6) improve the traveler’s experience. Working with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Miller Hull developed effective new strategies for processing vehicles and pedestrians in a well-organized and secure environment.
In 2010, the first phase of design demonstrated that high-performing buildings can be developed during a highly compressed timeline with an integrated, interdisciplinary design process. Maintaining operations 24/7/365, the first construction phase was completed in 2014 amidst a congested and sometimes chaotic traffic environment. The focal point of these initial phases was the highly-visible Port Operations Building, which anchors the Port’s central campus and is juxtaposed against the lightweight, concave arc of the inbound primary inspection canopy at the southeast corner of the site. These two iconic structures provide an impactful impression for an average of 85,000 travelers entering the United States through the SYLPOE each day to shop, go to work or school, and visit family and friends.
The 230-meter-long primary inspection canopy spans 35 lanes of inbound traffic and is supported by a tensile cable and steel structure with four 38-meter-tall masts set in the middle of Interstate 5. Each mast supports the shade structure from tensile cables spanning eight traffic lanes and opens the ground plane for increased visibility, lane clearances and officer interaction with the public. The canopy’s roof incorporates both photovoltaic (PV) panels and ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). The use of ETFE significantly reduces the structural weight and overall canopy depth and serves to minimize heat gain and glare from sunlight during the day, while reflecting artificial light off its underside during nighttime operations. Below the canopy, 62 inspection booths are stacked in tandem at each lane, which increases inspection processing time by 150 percent.
The linear architectural expression of the 27,432-square-meter Port Operations Building is sited parallel to Interstate 5, passing along both the east and west sides of the structure. The Port Operations Building utilizes PV panels and solar thermal panels, which contribute hot water and energy to the facility. Visual and physical access to and from the building were critical to safe and efficient working spaces for Port officers. The Port Operations Building and the adjacent Narcotics Seizure Processing Building incorporate highly durable materials at the pedestrian-scaled ground level. Exterior claddings and finishes include steel, pre-cast concrete panels, terracotta and fiber-cement siding dressed in a crisp palette of gray and cerulean, alluding to both the civic purpose and southwest context of the project.
The inbound secondary inspection canopies are located to the west of the Port Operations Building, providing an inspection area for approximately 75 vehicles. Together, the canopies measure roughly 120 meters long and 65 meters wide. The structure is comprised of long-span box trusses anchored atop concrete columns, which appear to float delicately above the ground plane with minimal support. The canopy structures are covered by ETFE and PV panels.
In 2014, the subsequent phase of design and construction extended inbound inspection lanes and canopies and broadened the outbound operations of the Port by rerouting lanes of Southbound Interstate 5 to meet Mexico’s El Chaparral Port Facility in Tijuana. Port operations were further expanded through the construction of outbound primary and secondary inspection canopies, an administrative Outbound Headhouse and parking garage.
With a dual ramp configuration that expedites traffic flow for employees and site personnel, the parking garage is the largest structure on site with a considerable visual impact to both vehicular passengers and pedestrians. The façade of the parking garage is clad in a perforated horizontal metal panel system, which allows for open-air ventilation, visual seclusion and shade. The façade also provided a creative opportunity for artist Ryan McGinness, who developed a band of graphic symbols integrated into the screen as a historical aspect and contextual narrative of the site.
The SYLPOE was designed to set the standard for “The Port of the Future” by optimizing performance, increasing safety and establishing new standards for sustainability. It is a minimum 50-year facility unique and specific in use that must support the needs of upwards of 100,000 daily visitors, including hundreds of federal employees and 24/7/365 operation. Each phase of the SYLPOE meets federal mandates for performance, achieving LEED Platinum certification.
Due to operational and security requirements, energy and water consumption is high. Much of the program occurs outdoors in a predominantly sunny and warm climate where weather and daylight offer benefits and challenges to performance and comfort. Miller Hull initially addressed these issues from a campus perspective during the master planning process by incorporating high-performing energy and water features utilized year-round.
The campus’ path to high-performing energy began with an efficient central utility plant (CUP). The CUP houses mechanical and electrical equipment designed to support all phases of the program, ensuring resilient operations. In tandem with the PV panels and the geo-exchange field, the CUP helps the SYLPOE generate its own energy.
Working alongside the efficient energy systems, a membrane bioreactor (MBR) and 300,000-gallon rainwater cistern are located in the CUP and function as a water treatment plant for on-site gray and blackwater, reducing water use by an anticipated 18 million gallons per year. Additional water management features include drought resistant native plantings in bio-retention and filtration areas and low-flow fixtures and controls. Water collection, treatment and reduction strategies ensure the Port can provide for all non-potable water.
Wellness is a large part of the safety and security of the campus. The inspection booths require officers to work in an outside environment 24/7. Leveraging marine air and dilution ventilation, the breathing zones of vehicle inspection lanes and buildings are oriented away from CO2 emissions using a fresh air curtain around the officers. Natural ventilation is utilized in open and high infiltration areas such as inspection booths, under canopies and inside the pedestrian processing areas.
During the cooler evenings, heating is required in both indoor and outdoor spaces. Improved thermal comfort within the inspection booths was provided using low mass radiant ergonomic leaning panels for the inspectors. Radiant panels provide heating and cooling when the door is open, and the low mass allows the heating/cooling operation to change quickly from day to night. In addition, the overhead PV panels and ETFE canopy keeps the inspectors (in booths and the larger inspection area) out of the direct sun and reduces glare, making their job easier to perform and more comfortable.
By successfully redefining security, durability and performance, the new San Ysidro Land Port of Entry sets a modern standard for future border checkpoints across the United States and beyond.